Aston Villa supporters finally have hope again – Part I

1 Comment

BIRMINGHAM, England — If you’re new to English soccer, you might not be aware of the fact that Aston Villa are one of the biggest clubs in the country. After all, they’re currently sitting 12th in the table, and are having difficulty stringing together a series of decent results. The last few seasons brought relegation battles, not pushes for Champions League football. But Villa were one of the founding members of the Football League in 1888 and have since spent 107 seasons in the top flight — that’s more than any club save Everton. They’ve won the title seven times, the FA Cup seven times, and captured the European Cup in 1981-1982, one of only five English clubs to have done so.

But it’s been a miserable few seasons for the Villa. After three straight seasons of finishing in sixth place in the Premier League — and even challenging for that elusive fourth Champions League position — manager Martin O’Neill abruptly left the club, resigning less than a week before the first match of 2010. Since August 2010, the club have had four different managers at the helm, with the squad’s style swinging abruptly from attempts at smooth continental possession-style to lock-em-down-and-hope-for-a-point. As a result, Villa’s fortunes took a nosedive, and the fans have had to deal with the hand-twisting, stomach-jangling fear of relegation in each of the past three seasons. But now, a few months in to Paul Lambert’s second season with Aston Villa, the supporters are finally able to starting to think optimistically.

In general, Villa fans aren’t known for being all that hopeful. They’ll complain about the team’s style of play, about the manager’s squad selection, about a lack of money — things supporters of almost every club do on a weekly basis. But in recent years, many Villa fans have sounded even more pessimistic, asserting that their once-proud history is being eclipsed by a dismal future. When I last paid a visit, just as the 2011-2012 season was about to kick off, talk was about how to prepare for a spell in the Championship. This time around, fans remained realistic about the club’s chances, and its dismal away record, but spoke warmly about the current leadership and were happy to demonstrate the quality of the traveling support.

source:
Aston Villa’s iconic club crest has been synonymous with underachievement for quite a few years now. But the massive club is ready to get back amongst the trophies.

Of course, this may have had to do with the fact that I paid a visit prior to the away game against West Bromwich Albion. The ties against West Brom are Villa’s biggest derbies this season. And, with just a few miles between the two grounds, an away day at The Hawthorns is no real hardship for most Villa fans. Thus, by Monday lunchtime, much of Birmingham had a festive air about it, with supporters booking off work to be sure to get a few pints in before kickoff. Supporters groups like the Kiddminster Lions and the Bromsgrove Villa Lions were in town early, making pubs like the Briar Rose in the city center rather crowded before 5 p.m. even rolled around. The bars were bustling and, every so often, an Aston Villa chant would ring through the throng. While police “spotters” were on hand to ensure no trouble broke out between rival fan bases, the ones I spoke with were quick to reassure me they had’t spotted any troublemakers, nor were they expecting any.

Part of the reason for the party-like feel hanging over much of Birmingham prior to the match against Albion is that the Villa now have a greater rival to focus their attentions upon. Despite West Brom and Villa having been the bigger clash for the majority of the clubs’ history, for most supporters, hatred of Birmingham City now eclipses that rivalry. In fact, many stated that, should the two sides play in the same division in the near future, they would not attend the match — that’s how noxious the atmosphere has become between the two sets of supporters.

But that’s not how it is for Villa against West Brom. Sure, you don’t speak to your Albion mates for a week before the match, and most likely for the week after. And those Albion supporters do their best to wind up the Villa fans, mocking their accents with a high pitched chant and flashing “We know who we are,” on the Jumbotron before kickoff. For Villa supporters, however, Albion fans trying to stir the pot are viewed as rather silly. It doesn’t matter that WBA have finished higher than Villa over the past few seasons, or that they’re currently higher in the table. Villa are a big club, Albion are not. Simple as that.

(READ MORE: And why should I become a Villa supporter? – Part II)

Of course, that feeling of superiority almost ended in disaster for the Villa support on Monday night. Before fifteen minutes were out, Shane Long had put the hosts up 2-0. The visiting fans were silent while the rest of the stadium rang out with chants of “Who are ya? Who are ya?” Did Villa supporters really have a reason to keep boasting? Or did Baggies fans have a point, that maybe a new era was shaping up in the Midlands?

But by the end of the match, Aston Villa had turned it around, with two second half goals by Karim El Ahmadi and Ashley Westwood. And that, in a nutshell, is why Villa fans are finally finding themselves able to hope once more. Their club isn’t perfect. It’s still in a rebuilding process. But going down 2-0 doesn’t necessarily mean defeat (remember Manchester City?). And there’s no longer reason to get bogged down in the mud of despair.

Why the change? Most of it stems from the appointment of Paul Lambert as manager at the start of the 2012-2013 season. Lambert took over from Alex McLeish, a managerial appointment that most supporters failed to understand and never gave full backing. Why owner Randy Lerner ever chose the man who’d just been at the helm for Birmingham City’s relegation — and led the Blues past Villa in a humiliating League Cup semi-final — will likely never be understood. A fairly young supporter named Jonathan asserted that the McLeish season was Villa’s lowest point. While older fans might argue with that point, the fact remains that almost everyone I spoke to had a sneer on their face at the mention of the man who Lambert replaced. Perhaps McLeish’s history could’ve been overcome had he produced results, or even decent football. But under McLeish, Villa were dreadful. Boring. Painful to watch. They won just 7 times, drawing 17 times, and scoring just 37 goals. They recorded 7 goalless draws, including two in derbies. At the least, to say 2011-2012 was Villa’s worst season in the past two decades would certainly be correct.source: Getty Images

So Paul Lambert already had one important distinguishing characteristic: He was not Alex McLeish. For this reason, Villa supporters were willing to give him a chance (although bringing newly promoted Norwich to a 12th place finish couldn’t have hurt). And they still are. While there was a bit of grumbling from certain sectors a few weeks ago, fretting over whether Lambert’s time was up, most seem willing to keep giving the manager the benefit of the doubt — although they’d sure like him to start winning at home.

Most Villa fans remain realistic. After O’Neill left, Lerner and CEO Paul Faulkner made it clear that cost cutting measures would go into effect: there would be no more pricey players; wages would no longer account for 85% of annual turnover. This is not a club that is owned by a multi-billionaire and as such, it is not a club that can afford marquee signings, pointed out Gary, a supporter old enough to remember the days when Lerner’s millions would have been enough. But Paul Lambert and his team have done well to scout out affordable players from England’s lower leagues, and have snapped up under-the-radar signings from throughout Europe. Out of necessity, Lambert’s Lions are a young squad, and that’s one of the reasons fans are willing to be patient.

When speaking about the manager, more than one fan mentioned that the club, and the supporters, need to give the gaffer more time, that making Villa great again would take a manager more than just a few months. “This season is massive to determine where we are,” stated Andrew, who was having a pint with Gary, Jonathan and his girlfriend, Yasmin, a Villa fan since birth. Andrew is one that believes the club has improved since Lerner took over at the helm, and that Lambert is a fine man for to manage the Villa. 

More than that, though, Paul Lambert has passion. Paul Lambert loves the Villa. This is what a pair of supporters, James and Phil, were quick to point out. James and Phil are of different generations, but that’s of little import when discussing matters connected to the club. Both agree that those connected with Villa should love the club, particularly because the clubs’ fans are themselves so passionate. Perhaps that’s why fans never really connected to Gerard Houllier, who rarely betrayed emotion. Or to McLeish, because how could a man who’d coached the Bluenoses truly want the best for Villa? But Lambert, jumping on the sidelines, defending his squad, hugging his players on the touchline…Villa fans see themselves in their manager, and that creates a connection.

A manager they can identify with. A club that, for the most part, fans believe is being run correctly. And a squad of exciting young players often playing in a fun and attacking style. When you realize Villa are 12th place in the table, and there remains a lingering uncertainty as to whether the squad can pull off results against lower-level sides, it seems strange that supporters are in boisterous spirits. But when you flash back to two seasons ago, as Villa supporters watched Emile Heskey desperately searching for a goal or viewed a 0-0 draw against newly promoted Swansea, it’s much easier to understand why optimism is prevailing amidst the claret-and-blue faithful.

Burnley – Sheffield United stream: How to watch, team news, prediction

Burnley - Sheffield United stream
Photo by Rich Linley - CameraSport via Getty Images
Leave a comment

Burnley and Sheffield United jockey for potential Europa League footing at Turf Moor on Sunday (Watch live at 7 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

The eighth-place visitors and their ninth-place hosts open the day a win back of seventh-place Arsenal.

Seventh is currently set to be a Europa League place thanks to the European ban handed to second-place Manchester City, who is protesting the ban.

Eighth would also be a UEL spot with all four FA Cup semifinalists currently in the top seven. Arsenal could still finish outside the top eight and win the FA Cup, which would leave seventh as the last qualifying place.

STREAM BURNLEY – SHEFFIELD UNITED LIVE

Team news

Burnley – Sheffield United Prediction

Burnley can scrap with anyone but Blades have a bit more depth and comfort with their XI. Sheffield United 1-0.

Chelsea’s Pulisic reacts to Eden Hazard comparisons

Leave a comment

Last week, Frank Lampard compared Christian Pulisic’s potential to that of the finished products shown by Sadio Mane, Mohamed Salah, and Raheem Sterling.

After another terrific performance for Chelsea in a 3-0 defeat of Watford, he was asked about being compared to Chelsea royalty: Eden Hazard.

“Obviously he was an incredible player for Chelsea,” Pulisic said. “He’s a world-class player. I’m not trying to compare myself to him just yet. I’m just trying to be my own player and hopefully the fans like that guy.”

[ MORE: Pulisic Watch — His day v. Watford ]

Pulisic drew a penalty and had the pass before the assist on Ross Barkley’s late goal to salt away the win and fourth place in the Premier League for another few days.

The Blues had lost late to West Ham United at midweek, and Pulisic admits the boys were fired up to avenge the setback.

“We needed that one today,” he said. “There was a little extra bit of energy because of that loss. We wanted to come out and prove a point today.”

Finally, Pulisic was asked what he’d be doing if he was home in the States on the Fourth of July.

“If I was home in the U.S. I’d be having a barbecue with my family and enjoying Independence Day.”

Stock answer. Only way he could lose points with us today.

Chelsea cruises past relegation-worried Watford

Leave a comment

Chelsea got goals from Willian, Ross Barkley, and Olivier Giroud in a comfortable 3-0 defeat of Watford at Stamford Bridge on Saturday.

USMNT star Christian Pulisic drew a penalty for Willian’s goal and helped set up Barkley’s third goal in his fourth-straight start in 10 days.

[ MORE: Pulisic Watch – USMNT star shines again ]

Chelsea moves back atop Manchester United for fourth place, one point behind Leicester City.

Watford’s 28 points are one point better than two of the bottom three, with Aston Villa holding a match-in-hand and set to visit Liverpool on Sunday.

[ MORE: Pulisic reacts to Hazard comparisons ]


Three things we learned

1. Chelsea holds serve in top four fight: Wins for Manchester United and Leicester City meant the Blues could finish the day in either fourth or fifth. The decisive performance was a welcome one for Chelsea boss Frank Lampard following a late loss at West Ham earlier in the week. The Blues meet Crystal Palace, Sheffield United, and Norwich City before Liverpool and Wolves make for a dangerous final two league fixtures.

2. Pearson plans for midweek: Norwich City looks as down-and-out as any club right now, so it’s not likely a coincidence that Etienne Capoue and Troy Deeney came off the pitch with the score line 2-0 and 26 minutes to play. Watford will aim to find points in its home ground against a poor Canaries side on Tuesday.

3. Kante limps off: While Christian Pulisic and Ruben Loftus-Cheek have remained fit and available to Lampard, the manager won’t be happy that N’Golo Kante’s injury-hit season saw a possible concern with a 78th-minute sub for Billy Gilmour.

Man of the Match

It was either Pulisic or Willian, and we’re going to go with the Brazilian if only because CP gets a lot of run in these parts.


Chelsea – Watford recap

Christian Pulisic came out of the gates in lively form and within minutes Olivier Giroud had an odd-angled chance to head toward goal.

The Blues were all over Watford for the first 20 minutes, Pulisic, Willian, and Giroud very involved in the display.

Giroud put the Blues on the board with an experienced, spinning strike in the 29th minute. Getting the ball off a Ross Barkley feed, the Frenchman hit a cushioned low shot across his body and just inside the far post.

Pulisic played a role in the second goal, dribbling to the end line and getting manhandled by an out-of-his-mind Christian Kabasele on his cut back toward play. Penalty, Willian. 2-0.

[ MORE: Premier League stats ]

The second half was mostly Chelsea, too, and Willian forced Foster into a terrific 68th-minute save and corner kick to the Blues.

Watford had their moments late, including a Danny Welbeck effort that Kepa Arrizabalaga did very well to save.

Pulisic had a shot blocked in the 90th minute, and Will Hughes couldn’t convert a Welbeck-inspired play at the other end.

Instead, the American would settle for a “hockey assist,” slipping the ball to Azpilicueta inside the 18 before the Chelsea veteran set up Barkley’s exclamation point.

Pulisic Watch: In-form Chelsea star shines on Independence Day

Pulisic Watch
Photo by Matthew Childs/Pool via Getty Images
Leave a comment

Chelsea’s in-form American winger stayed that way, as Christian Pulisic won a penalty and looked lively throughout the Blues’ match with Watford at Stamford Bridge on Saturday.

[ MORE: Chelsea 3-0 Watford ]

Here are the moments he was in focus in his fourth-straight start for Frank Lampard, as the USMNT star had another brilliant performance on his nation’s Independence Day.

[ MORE: Pulisic reacts to Hazard comparisons ]


8th minute: Pulisic comes out of the gate in lively form and cuts between a pair of defenders before finding Mason Mount, whose cross is blocked out for a corner.

10th minute: Pulisic plays Giroud wide, and the Frenchman’s first touch is a bit wayward. A cross back towards Pulisic is cleared before it reaches the American.

15th minute: Pulisic is one of three players to hit the deck trying to get on the end of Reece James’ delightful cross from the right.

19th minute: Pulisic takes the ball from Willian and finds Giroud, whose shot is saved by Foster and winds up with Willian. His cross doesn’t reach the American and Giroud fouled a defender anyway.

30th minute: Moments after Giroud put the Blues up 1-0, Pulisic nods a high cross back toward the far post but Foster rescues the ball without much worry.

42nd minute: Pulisic won a second penalty kick of the restart when he cut back at the end line and was run over by Christian Kabasele.

[ MORE: Arsenal beats Wolves ]

47th minute: Cuts inside and tears into an ambitious shot that has too much pepper on it.

48th minute: He’s at it again a moment later, moving the ball left to Cesar Azpilicueta for a half-cleared cross.

56th minute: Pulisic works a 1-2 with Mason Mount but the ball doesn’t quite get back to the American thanks to Michael Dawson.

85th minute: Protests wildly for a penalty after Kabasele takes him down in the box once again. VAR doesn’t change anything and Pulisic is set to go 90 minutes for the third time in 10 days (He went 72 minutes in the fourth encounter during that time span).

90th minute: Azpilicueta slides Pulisic into the left of the box, but the American’s shot is blocked.

Stoppage time: Takes a short pass and gives it to Azpilicueta in the box, getting a “hockey assist” when Barkley slots home. Pulisic then nearly wins a corner with a pressuring run down the left.

Stat line: Three shots, one on target, one blocked. One-of-3 dribbles completed, one penalty won. Passed at 89 percent (33-of-37) with two key passes and 9-of-15 duels won. Four fouls drawn and three tackles (SofaScore).